Before the season, people would ask me, “What do you think about the Colorado Rockies?” I would kind of shrug and repeat the usual mantra, “Depends on if they are healthy, if they get some decent pitching and if they can learn how to hit on the road.” Then there’d be a little gleam in my eye as I’d say “And I think it all depends on Juan Nicasio.” I hate to say “I’m in the know”, partially because I am not sure how one can be in an abstract, but what I know of Nicasio intrigues me. Actually, I probably shouldn’t say “gleam in my eye” either since I wasn’t observing my eye at the time of the gleam but I hope you get the picture. If you did, please send me a copy so I can know what a gleam looks like.
I’ll admit that perhaps I get a little attached to guys who come back from freak injuries and a neck injury definitely qualifies. Still, I can get unattached from the emotions at times (unless it concerns Andre Dawson) and look at things a little more clinically. To me, it was pretty straightforward. Nicasio’s ratios pretty much across the board have been comparable to nominal ace Jhoulys Chacin. With the caveat that if (there’s that word again) he could recover some of his rookie year form while maintaining the strong peripherals, he becomes not just a decent placeholder but the best pitcher on the team. With how bad of a performance the Rockies got from their fifth starters last year, if Nicasio became even a quality #2 starter, it would indirectly add a ton of depth to both the starting pitching and the relief corps.
After Nicasio’s gem last night (or May 1st if you didn’t read this today, er, you get what I mean), I can play the sample size card on myself and say it is too premature to brag about being correct. Besides, there’s a chance Lyles (strikeout rate be gosh-ga-darned) might claim the mantle of Best Colorado Rockies Starting Pitcher™ Also, after all the injuries the Rockies have dealt with this year, they are turning out pretty unexpectedly decent (albeit not going too deep into games) in the starting pitching depth department. So yeah, preseason-wise, I might’ve underestimated how important Nicasio might be in terms of depth.
Yet, he still has the ratios to leapfrog the field and remain in the rotation (future salary permitting) once people recover from injuries or minor league seasons in Colorado Springs. Let’s take a look at what Nicasio’s done so far in his career.
That doesn’t look all that much different than Chacin.
Nicasio has a bit better control, allowing less walks and more strikeouts than Chacin. He gives up a few more home runs and hits than Chacin but career-FIP wise, they are very close.
Last year was the closest that Juan Nicaiso has come to pitching a full season since 2011. Flipping back to that 2011 season, after a slew of injuries to the Rockies major league staff, Nicasio was promoted at the age of 24 from AA to the majors without tossing a pitch in AAA. He performed pretty well with a low (for Coors Field) era of 4.14 with a more than decent 1.270 WHIP accompanied by solid H/9, HR/9, BB/9 and K/9. Significnatly, his FIP was a nice 3.65. For 2012, he threw for two months , walking more, striking out more, and giving up a ton of hits until he injured his knee on June 2nd, 2012. Yet, even with the small bump in his FIP, he was still solid at 3.99. 2013 was a mixed bag. The hit rate leveled out but his BB/9 went up, his SO/9 went down and his FIP spiked yet again but he got some innings in.
So let’s talk about 2014. His FIP is still at the 2013 levels. Yet, note that his H/9 is close to his rookie season ratios and his BB/9 is the best of his career. What’s spiked the FIP? An uncommonly high HR/9 rate (for him) so far, which is odd in a pitcher with groundball tendencies.
So, with the absence of many major league innings, it may be a little unfair, but we’ll discuss his minor league numbers. From there, we see low BB/9 rates, high SO/9 rate and anemic HR/9 ratios. Of course, minor league numbers should be better than major league numbers, But with a HR/9 rate in the majors going from a career 1.0 HR/9 rate to a 1.3 HR/9 rate for this season, minor league numbers can help buttress the idea that he is not a pitcher generally prone to giving up home runs.
So, besides the home run rate, what else has zorched Nicasio in 2014? Lefties. They have not been friendly to Nicasio so far this year. In 2014, his OPS against left handed batters is at a staggering 0.925 with only 7 strikeouts in 63 appearances. By comparison his OPS against right handers is .696. However, throughout his career, he’s tended to be more neutral in regards to platoon splits. For his career, his OPS versus left handers is .814 while it has been .767 against right handers. Furthermore, his strikeout rate has remained steady against lefthanders (126 K /601 PA) and righthanders (131 K/668 PA) throughout his career so it is realistic to expect his 2014 numbers to even out.
One thing he needs to fix is his first pitch of the at-bat. Nicasio is getting slapped on the first pitch in 2014 to the tune of a .923 OPS (though in only 13 plate appearances) and yielding a 1.060 OPS if the first pitch is a ball. Even throughout his career, he’s yielded an OPS of 0.988 on the first pitch and a .908 OPS if the first pitch is a ball.
One thing he doesn’t need to fix, however, is how well he does at Coors. Look at the numbers below. For whatever reason (or whatever luck), Nicasio has pitched much better at Coors Field throughout his career than on the road, allowing fewer hits, home runs and walks while striking out more people at Coors. That trend has been exacerbated in 2014 with a really poor road game leading to horrendous away numbers while his Coors Field numbers have been stellar. Either way, finding someone who pitches better at Coors than on the road is a distinct rarity.
On another note, for all those “Nicasio should be moved to the bullpen because he does worse after his first time through the order” types, Nicasio’s OPS in 2014 for the first time through the order is .766, the second time is .711. He does do worse the third time through the order at .960, as many starting pitchers do. That being said, no matter how many times they have faced him in that game, opposing hitters have an OPS of only .506 with runners on base. It would help if he would chew up a few more innings, but the innings he has thrown have been of good quality.
Nicasio is getting “older” as in, he’s no longer young. He’s reaching the point of being at the two to three year peakof his career before he gets to the “he is what he is” stage of his career. There is something of value there, especially in his ability to navigate Coors Field. Ideally 2014 should be the year the Rockies figure out what the future of their rotation is. So far, though Nicasio hasn’t been perfect every time out, he’s had a decent 2014. Nicasio’s had to deal with quite a bit of adversity as well as a stunted minor league career path. If (yet again, that word) that means he’s finally settling in this year, it’ll be nice to see what a pitcher who has a track record of success at Coors Field is able to do. Word to the wise, he shouldn’t be doing it from the bullpen since the rate stats look quite a bit pretty than the ERA. The front office (and we) should know better than to suggest that.